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Jim Kenyon: Dartmouth international students left hanging on housing

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

Valley News Columnist
Published: 6/2/2020 9:51:58 PM
Modified: 6/2/2020 9:51:52 PM

Dartmouth College international student Tehut Biru, a junior majoring in cognitive science, should be focusing on studying for final exams, which begin later this week.

Instead Biru, who is from Ethiopia, is spending much of her time and energy trying to figure out how she will pay for food and a place to live this summer, if Dartmouth doesn’t allow her to remain on campus.

In the throes of a global pandemic, that’s a lot of stress for a 21-year-old college student, 7,000 miles from home.

And how Dartmouth, with its $5.7 billion endowment, can let this happen is beyond me. (I’ll get to the college’s response in a bit.)

Since the novel coronavirus shut down the campus and classes were moved online in March, Dartmouth has allowed Biru and other international students who couldn’t get home to remain in dorms. The college also provides take-out meals from a campus dining hall.

But it’s all apparently coming to an end.

The Dartmouth International Students Association says that more than 100 international students “face homelessness and food insecurity due to the college’s last-minute decision to evict them” after the spring term ends next week.

This week, international students told me that most of the students the college is threatening to put out on the street are people of color from poor countries. It’s their understanding that if they aren’t enrolled in the summer term, they must leave campus by June 10.

Many international students, however, can’t take summer classes because it would “violate our visa restrictions, opening us up to a number of legal consequences, including loss of work authorizations,” the Dartmouth International Students Association wrote in an online petition drive that started on Monday.

Many of the international students, including Biru, didn’t intend to spend the summer in Hanover. But when the pandemic hit, internships they had lined up were either canceled or scaled back.

Why don’t they just go home for the summer?

The online petition points out that 57% of Dartmouth’s international students receive financial aid. They don’t have the money to get home. They also can’t afford to pay for off-campus housing in Hanover, the petition states.

At last count, Dartmouth had 126 international students still on campus, college spokeswoman Diana Lawrence told me. (Overall, Dartmouth has nearly 450 international students, representing 9.8% of its undergraduates.)

On Tuesday, Biru was among four international students I met on the Dartmouth Green.

Biru grew up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital and largest city. Her parents are both educators. By Ethiopian standards, her family is considered middle-class, but in the U.S., “we’d be low-income,” she said.

In high school, Biru met a Dartmouth recruiter, who had traveled to Ethiopia, Africa’s second-largest country, in search of strong academic students.

Many international students consider Dartmouth the most “safe place” to be in the U.S. during the pandemic even though they have “no family here,” Biru said. “They only know Dartmouth.”

Until receiving what they perceived as an eviction notice on May 21, many international students “assumed the college was figuring out how to help us,” she said.

Before the coronavirus, Biru had earned an internship in San Francisco. In mid-May, however, she learned it was a no-go. Biru, who spent last summer at home, looked into returning to Ethiopia. A one-way plane ticket was about $1,500. The Ethiopian government also requires people entering the country to self-quarantine for 14 days at a designated hotel, where rooms cost $100 to $200 a night.

“I don’t have the money for that right now,” she said.

At Dartmouth, Biru worked part time in the library and as a tutor. When the campus closed, she lost her sources of spending money and ability to save for a trip home. On Tuesday — the day after the international students group made their concerns public — Dean of the College Kathryn Lively sent an email to undergraduates, stating there’s a “great deal of misinformation in circulation.”

Lively reminded students that Dartmouth has “already provided financial and logistical travel assistance for those who wished to leave.” She added that students who have travel plans pending for June will “continue to have housing and meals on campus through their departure dates.”

That sounds good, but for some international students it’s not as simple as Dartmouth writing a check for a plane ticket back home.

The students I talked with were worried about what happens at the end of the summer.

Biru, for instance, needs to get her student visa renewed the next time she returns to Ethiopia. Will the U.S. embassy be open? Last week, Reuters reported Ethiopia had recorded 831 confirmed coronavirus cases and six deaths, but cases were increasing throughout the continent, particularly in Ethiopia.

International students are also nervous about the Trump administration. (Aren’t most of us?) Under Trump’s anti-immigration policies — aimed at people of color — will students from poor countries even be allowed back into the U.S.?

In her email, Lively wrote, “A small number of students may be eligible to remain on campus even if not enrolled because of their unique academic and visa circumstances.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Biru told me that she and her friends had seen Lively’s email, but it didn’t seem to “offer us any solutions.”

They still worry about becoming homeless next week. In the meantime, Biru’s first exam is Saturday.

The demands of an Ivy League education continue, even if the support has its limits.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at

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